10 Day Road Trip on the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia
Seeing Patagonia has been at the top of my list for years. The raw, untamed, natural beauty of this remote region of the world has always excited my imagination. The challenge that my fiancée Erin and I had when planning our trip was: What is the best way to see Chilean Patagonia?
While there are plenty of options, including walking or biking (reserved for much braver people than us) we decided to rent a car and take a road trip. To avoid crazy one-way costs, we booked the car round-trip in and out of Puerto Montt. Essentially, we decided to save $4,000 and drive 1,500 miles back to Puerto Montt once we finished our journey south.
Our full road trip was 31 days in length, however the part we were most excited about was the first ten days on the Carretera Austral. This road, completed in 1996, was an ambitious project that aimed to connect remote, rural communities. In the process, a road was formed that connects some of the most naturally beautiful places on Earth that had been essentially untouched by tourism before 1996.
Carretera Austral Road Trip, Day 1: Puerto Montt to Hornopirén
We started the trip by picking up the rental car and getting the hell out of Puerto Montt. Starting in Puerto Montt was necessary to get the rental car, but otherwise it was one of our least favourite places we’ve travelled to. We started down Route 7 (Carretera Austral) and quickly hit our first ferry crossing at Caleta La Arena.
The road just ends at the ferry and we waited about 15 minutes before boarding the boat for a 30 minute ride. Once we were off, we drove another hour and a half until we arrived in Hornopirén where we camped for the night in preparation for taking the “big” ferry early in the morning the next day.
Day 2: Hornopirén to Camping Cascadas Escondidas
From Hornopirén we boarded a ferry that took us south for 3.5 hours through a stunning lake with snow-capped mountains surrounding us on either side. This ferry stopped at Leptepu, where all the cars on the ferry had to continue driving south for about 20 minutes before catching another ferry to take us to Caleta Gonzalo, the real beginning of the remoteness the Carretera Austral is known for.
From Caleta Gonzalo, we drove about 20 minutes before coming to Camping Cascadas Escondidas. The campground was beautiful and true to the name (Cascadas Escondidas means “hidden waterfalls” in English) there was a 3 hour up and back trail from the campsite leading to two incredible waterfalls. This might have been our favourite hike of the entire trip – you can’t miss it!
Day 3: Cascadas Escondidas to Camping Ventisquero
In the morning, we packed up the tent and left our incredible camping oasis to head south toward Chaitén. We stopped to hike Volcan Chaitén, which as the name suggests, was a hike to a volcano. This hike was very challenging and we didn’t bring enough water with us. We struggled our way to the top, which had really great views of the smoking volcano, but overall the lack of water and steepness of the climb made it fall towards the bottom of our “favourite hikes” list.
We continued on to Chaitén where we dropped in for supplies and an ice cream cone, and drove toward our final destination of the day: Camping Ventisquero. Nestled deep within Parque Pumalin, this campsite is the most alluring and calm place we had ever been to. We were instantly taken by the gorgeous scenery and surprisingly nice camping facilities at our disposal. We pitched our tent in a field with views of snow-capped mountains right outside the door to our tent.
Carretera Austral Road Trip, Day 4: Camping Ventisquero
We fell so in love with Camping Ventisquero that we decided to rearrange our plans and stay another night. The morning was relaxing; we sipped on hot tea, took in the sunshine, and just enjoyed being in nature. We pulled out our mats and had a nice yoga flow in our secluded grassy field, just the two of us.
Once we had our fill of relaxation, we decided to do the Mirador hike that left right from the campground. The hike brought us up to a beautiful viewpoint of the mountains and the Michinmahuida Glacier. We didn’t realise at first, but ventisquero means glacier, which is a perfect name for this stunning campsite with a view of a glacier.
Day 5: Camping Ventisquero to Coyhaique
We regrettably left Camping Ventisquero to head south toward Coyhaique. Since we stayed an extra night, we had to drive 9 hours to Coyhaique to be able to fit in all the things we wanted to do. However, about halfway through the drive we stopped at the Hanging Glacier in Parque Nacional Queulat.
It was a cloudy day, so it was difficult to see the Hanging Glacier at first. We walked over a suspension bridge toward the boat dock and once we arrived, the clouds had shifted and the view was tremendous. We took a boat ride to get even closer, which I highly recommend!
After the Hanging Glacier, we jumped back in the car and drove straight to Coyhaique where we settled down in a hostel, opting for a warm shower and a bed for the night after 4 nights of camping.
Day 6: Coyhaique to Villa Cerro Castillo
Refreshed after spending the night in a comfortable bed, we headed toward Villa Cerro Castillo. After just 2 hours, we arrived to this tiny town located seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We found one of maybe a handful of restaurants in the town to have lunch at and settled down at our camping spot for the night, Camping Senderos Patagonia.
Here we were able to settle in to the common area, get some work done and have our laundry washed. Our campsite for the night was up on a hillside and offered great views of Castle Hill (Cerro Castillo).
Day 7: Villa Cerro Castillo to Puerto Río Tranquilo
In the morning, we were originally going to hike to Laguna Cerro Castillo, but after talking with locals, we decided against it. Not only was the hike long and difficult, apparently the last hour or so was still completely covered in snow and the laguna (the main attraction for its bright blue colour) was iced over and covered with a white blanket of snow. Therefore, we packed up the tent and headed south to Puerto Río Tranquilo.
After the 3 hour drive to Río Tranquilo, we immediately dropped in to check on tours as this quaint town is a jumping off point for many excursions. We had two things we wanted to do: kayak to the Marble Caves and walk on the Exploradores Glacier. We were able to book the kayak tour right away and within an hour we were on the crystal clear lake exploring these incredible marble formations in the lake. Definitely a must-do in Puerto Río Tranquilo!
Day 8: Puerto Río Tranquilo to Camping Casa de Piedra
We woke up at the crack of dawn to join our tour group to Exploradores Glacier. Over the course of about 9 hours, we drove to the glacier, hiked over treacherous land and rocks to the glacier, and then walked on the glacier with cramp-ons. We were able to hike through two caverns in the ice which were breathtaking. It was one of the coolest experiences of my life!
Once we hiked back and wearily piled into the van to Puerto Río Tranquilo, we weren’t sure if we were going to stay another night in town or not. Since I felt up to it, we decided to continue south and actually head east off the Carretera Austral onto X83 into Parque Patagonia. We stayed in a nice campsite called Casa de Piedra and passed out (we were so tired!).
Day 9: Camping Casa de Piedra to Camping Alto Valle
The next day we met up with some friends we had met along the way and moved to Alto Valle campground which was just 30 minutes down the road. From Alto Valle we could walk to the Lago Chico trail which is a long looping hike around Lake Chico. The hike was a decent length but not too difficult which made it a really nice experience.
On our last night in Chile, we had a campsite dinner and made friends with the other campers. There is no feeling like being disconnected in nature with a bunch of new, fast friends where you can just share travel stories and connect – no WiFi or service to be had. It was a wonderful night and one we will remember forever.
Carretera Austral Road Trip, Day 10: Camping Alto Valle to Paso Roballos Border Crossing
Our road trip through northern Chilean Patagonia came to an end as we drove to one of the most remote border crossings between Chile and Argentina, Paso Roballos. We crossed into Argentina with heavy hearts; Chile was spectacular and we weren’t sure if Argentina could live up to the challenge!
Head to Chilean Patagonia Now!
Book a flight, rent a car, and drive down the Carretera Austral. If we knew what we know now, we would have spent much more time on the Carretera Austral. Ten days was hardly enough to do this amazing region justice!
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